NEW YORK, July 19 (UPI) -- Researchers found an implant that delivers buprenorphine may work as well for patients in treatment for opioid dependency as other forms of the medication.
The implant simplified delivery of buprenorphine, used to stop cravings of people being treated for opioid addiction, and showed fewer relapses among patients when compared to those using sublingual forms of the drug, report researchers at the Icahn School of Medicine.
Buprenorphine is a synthetic opioid used to treat people who have developed addictions to opioid drugs, be they prescription painkillers or heroin.
The drug works by eliminating cravings for opioids, though patients can achieve the highs they may seek by increasing doses of the oral version of the drug or may sell them in order to get the actual drug they want.
Dr. Richard Rosenthal, a researcher at Mount Sinai who led the new study comparing the implant with oral doses, said for patients who have been stable in their treatment -- no relapses, properly maintaining their prescribed medications -- the implant has the potential to be a big help because there is no way to alter dosing.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first buprenorphine implant in May, with Rosenthal saying his study shows there are many patients who can benefit from receiving their medication this way.
"I think you're going to see more and more of these types of drugs delivered this way," Rosenthal told UPI in a phone interview. "It takes the discussions about dosing off the table. So rather than seeing your patient going up and down and manipulating dose, once you get it set right, you can really focus with the patient on the work of recovery."
For the study, published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers recruited 177 patients, randomizing 90 to receive sublingual buprenorphine with placebo implants and 87 who received buprenorphine implants and sublingual placebo.
During the six-month study, 96.4 percent of those with active implants and 87.6 percent of those given sublingual forms of the drug responded to treatment. Additionally, 85.7 percent of those with active implants remained abstinent from opioids, while 71.9 percent of those receiving sublingual buprenorphine abstained.
All patients in the study were in what Rosenthal calls the "taper phase," where they already have been abstinent for at least six months and do well complying with treatment, which in this case was a relatively low dose of buprenorphine.
In an editorial published with the study, researchers at the National Institute of Drug Abuse note that more research is necessary because of the limited scope of the recent study -- most participants were white, employed, had at least a high school education and were dependent on prescription opioids.
So, while the implants worked for the population participating in the study, future research is needed to determine whether the delivery method will work for other patients.
"This novel approach to delivering care may open up treatment for new, previously difficult-to-reach populations or for those in the criminal justice system," NIDA researchers wrote in the editorial. "Although further research is needed to determine which populations would benefit the most from these new formulations, the potential of these agents to have a positive role in the current opioid crisis is undeniable."